By Pascal Fletcher and Manuel Mucari
MAPUTO (Reuters) - Mozambicans voted on Wednesday in elections expected to return the ruling Frelimo party to power in one of Africa's fastest-growing resource-rich economies, and international observers said voting was generally peaceful.
Polling stations, many set up in schools, closed across the Indian Ocean nation at 6 p.m.(12.00 noon EDT). Election officers immediately began the painstaking task of counting the ballot papers by hand. The national electoral commission was expected to start announcing provisional results from Thursday.
Throughout Wednesday, lines had formed at polling stations in the port capital Maputo and other cities, towns and villages. Voters waited patiently to make their choice in the elections for a new president, parliament and provincial assemblies.
"Up to now, it has been rather calm, and I would like it to stay that way," the head of the European Union observer mission, Judith Sargentini, told Reuters shortly after polls closed.
Sargentini, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who was one of more than 1,000 international observers monitoring the elections, said voting appeared to have gone mostly smoothly at the more than 17,000 polling stations, apart from some delays and hitches. An incident of ballot papers being burned was reported in the northwest province of Tete.
Foreign donors and investors hope the ballot will help to bury old animosities lingering from the 1975-1992 civil war fought between Frelimo and its old foe Renamo.
More than 10 million voters were registered to take part in the elections in the former Portuguese colony, whose 2,500-km (1,550-mile) coast extends from Tanzania to South Africa.
Mozambicans say they want whoever wins the vote to use newly-discovered coal and natural gas reserves to end poverty and inequality and to provide jobs.
"This country has natural riches, from Rovuma to Maputo, but they are still not being converted into benefits for the people," said Alberto Eduardo, 44, a delivery worker who voted at a school in Maputo's Polana Canico A neighborhood, a labyrinth of dusty tracks squeezed between ramshackle homes.
Frelimo is a former Marxist liberation movement that has ruled Mozambique since independence in 1975.
Its presidential candidate, former defense minister Filipe Nyusi, faces a determined challenge from both the Renamo leader and ex-rebel chief Afonso Dhlakama and from a rising third force -- Daviz Simango and his Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM).
Outgoing Frelimo President Armando Guebuza is barred by the constitution from standing for a third term.
The election, the fifth presidential vote since a 1992 peace deal ended the civil war, is "the most competitive in the history of the country", John Stremlau, vice president of peace programs at the Atlanta-based Carter Center and another of the foreign observers, told Reuters.
Some observers predict a close race. If Frelimo's Nyusi, 55, fails to secure more than 50 percent of the total vote, he will face a second round run-off with his nearest contender in which the anti-Frelimo votes would be united against him.
The new president will oversee the bringing into production of large-scale offshore natural gas and oil projects in the north already being developed by investors such as U.S. oil major Anadarko Petroleum Corp and Italy's Eni.
The Ebola epidemic in three West African nations has cast a pall over the wider region, but Mozambique in the southeast corner of Africa is so far Ebola-free. The IMF sees its gross domestic product (GDP) growth topping 8 percent this year, though most of its more than 25 million people are poor.
"The real test of this transition moment is whether the political leaders who have historically fought each other will think in terms of a government of national unity, so that you will have inclusivity in the aftermath," Stremlau said.
He noted all of the main political leaders had said they would accept the result.
In their campaigns, Renamo's Dhlakama and MDM's Simango attacked what they say is the stranglehold Frelimo has long maintained over political and economic power in Mozambique.
"Mozambique belongs to everyone" was the slogan of Simango, 50, a Renamo defector and civil engineer who made a credible first showing in the 2009 presidential vote and whose party made gains in local government elections last year.
In the two years before the vote, Dhlakama's armed Renamo partisans clashed sporadically with government troops and police and ambushed traffic on a north-south highway, triggering some concerns Mozambique could slide back into civil war.
The white-haired, bespectacled former guerrilla leader, who is 61, emerged from a bush hideout last month to ratify a deal with President Guebuza reaffirming the 1992 peace pact.
Another international observer, former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, said a peaceful outcome was important not just for Mozambique but for Africa. "Stability or instability in Mozambique affects the whole region," he said.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)